Pazz & Jop Comments: It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop

Popular music, at its top-dollar best, is either music to drive to or music to grill to; at its bestest best, it’s both. By my reckoning, track by track, the Carters’ Everything Is Love record is for: grilling, driving, driving, grilling, driving, grilling, grilling, driving, grilling. “Music has my kids sound asleep” might not be a lyric that will appeal to many, but it did to me as the year hit its crescendo, the hills on fire on every corner of America’s 8 1/2 by 11, the sky turning peach. “Summer’s light like summer’s night/It’s like Christ’s masterpiece” indeed.
— Daniel Brockman

[related_posts post_id_1=”706140″ /]

On Room 25, Noname delivered on a sophomore album with a lot more dizzying raps than her first. It’s almost like she heard the masses talkin’ shit about her skills and went wild on this record. Who else’s pussy is writing a thesis on colonialism?
— Tirhakah Love

Not enough can be said about the weight of this genre-welding meeting of titanic Texas forces: On “Gone Away,” Bun B writes what is, in all likelihood, his final letter to UGK bandmate Pimp C, but does it in a way that’s broad enough to be applied to any lost kin; Leon Bridges delivers a somber and vulnerable hook, and Gary Clark Jr. cleans up with a solo reminiscent of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Little Wing.” They’re truly the Texas triumvirate, and it’s a wonder we aren’t talking about the magnitude of this collaboration more as a culture. What’s better, it all takes place over a beat cooked up by Big K.R.I.T., whose beats have, in the wake of Pimp C’s death, given Bun’s delivery an unmatched comfort and ease. Put this one right up there with UGK’s own “One Day” in the canon of Southern rap eulogies.
Sama’an Ashrawi

Black Panther: The Album, Music From and Inspired ByNo mere album can live up to the cultural impact of this extremely ambitious comic book movie, but it’s a great companion piece nonetheless.
— Carol Cooper

[related_posts post_id_1=”707080″ /]

A rundown of personal and social horrors that’s less frantic but also far less calculated than the 1975’s “Love It If We Made It,” Lil Peep’s Life Is Beautiful is far more devastating. “Tryin’ to keep your cool at your grandfather’s funeral/Finding out eventually the feeling wasn’t mutual/You were not invited ’cause you’re nothing like the usual” — damn, that’s bleak. And it cuts much harder than the “My girlfriend left me so I’m depressed and I’m gonna take lots of drugs to cope” lyrics Lil Peep specialized in, as sincere as they clearly were.
— Steve Erickson

Travis Scott’s world domination is more than just a crowning achievement for an artist who’s long been a critical darling, but it’s a clear statement that the South, and especially Houston, the nation’s most diverse city, has got something to say.

Drenched in Houston’s legend’s sweat, Astroworld is a referendum on hip-hop as a genre and an art form. The album is slowed down, tripped out, and bombastic, as Scott liberally references Houston’s past as a hip-hop hotbed while pushing it past its Screwston reputation. Astroworld feels both futuristic and classic at the same time, and that’s something only Kendrick Lamar has been able to accomplish in the last half-decade.

But there will be no Nobel Prize for Astroworld. No Taylor Swift collabs, no Marvel soundtracks. It’s all just too druggy. Too street. Too Southern. Too real. 

And maybe that’s how it should be. But, one thing is for sure, Travis Scott’s moment is now, and he’s going to run with it straight to the Super Bowl halftime show, and he’s going to keep running with it till someone comes to take it from him.
— Jaime-Paul Falcon

By my count, Kids See Ghosts is the seventh time Kanye has made the best album of the year. But it’s no accident that this isn’t the 2018 record he put his name on, or that he needed a co-host to pull it off, or that it’s impossible to remember a single word he says throughout  —  which, thank God.
Nick Farruggia

Drake, “In My Feelings”: Only in 2018 Atlanta could I drive crosstown from berating a Bush speechwriter in a Roman Catholic sanctuary to Aubrey & the Three Migos at State Farm Arena preaching a center-right message of Maya Angelou vibes featuring Future, Young Jeezy, and Trey Songz. Did it for the culture. But you can imagine compassionate conservative Michael Gerson kicking himself for not writing “I wanna thank God for working way harder than Satan.” Elevate.

The next morning I returned to work, where a sickle cell anemia patient almost hemolyzed to death. 2018!
— Maureen Miller

With Cardi B’s “Bickenhead,” nasty hos from across the globe finally get the anthem they so righteously deserve.
— Jessica Hopper

[related_posts post_id_1=”712129″ /]

The day Pusha T’s “The Story of Adidon” dropped was unforgettable. I listened as it rolled out on Funk Flex (the first major terrestrial radio event in a while!), and he kept stopping at every new bar, overwhelmed, and then he would replay it from the beginning. I remember wanting him to get through the whole song, but this approach made sense — it’s a lot to take in. An unbelievable achievement in diss tracks, and Pusha’s best work this year.
Evan Minsker

Childish Gambino, “This Is America”: Donald Glover’s incantatory recitation would work without visuals, but Hiro Murai’s video represents America in 2018 as acutely as the newsreel footage in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. Utterly unnerving.
— Kathy Fennessy

[related_posts post_id_1=”712248″ /]

I like Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” but Earl Sweatshirt’s “December 24” gets the Gil-Scott Heron “Winter in America” mood more right than anything else I came across this year. (Which, my annual disclaimer, amounts to 1 percent of 1 percent of whatever hip-hop was out there in 2018.) It must be my shortest number one ever at 1:46 — I wish it went on for another 7 or 8 minutes. At the risk of sounding white-guy stupid, where does the opening genuine-dialect quote come from? I’ve Googled it, looked up the album credits, nothing. The significance of December 24 escapes me, too, but it feels right: aspirations, a plan, something that came up just short. Quote I came across in a Goon Sax interview: “Sad music is made for a reason and maybe it’s to repurpose something you’ve gone through.”
— Phil Dellio

The Carters, “Apeshit”In perhaps pop culture’s Blackest year — Black Panther, Kendrick’s Pulitzer, and Beyoncé’s own history-making Coachella set, for starters — Black America’s reigning monarchs deliver a worthy soundtrack.
— Trevor Anderson


2004 Pazz & Jop: Freedom for Every-Which-Where!

Whine about Lil Jon and Ashlee Simpson if you want. There was still plenty of good news in popular music this year, and it’s all over the 31st or 32nd Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, our largest ever hey hey hey. Any album list headed by The College Dropout, in which young Kanye West proved as deft and surprising a recalibrator of African American crossover as young Barack Obama, and SMiLE, in which acid casualty Brian Wilson excavated the same pivotal decade that tripped up veteran John Kerry, has its past-and-future straight. Any Top 10 that boasts three alt-minded rock bands who’ve convinced the RIAA to blingify their CDs is fighting the good fight. And if the Top 10 also reveals would-be optimists overrating good intentions and pretending small victories are big ones, well, that was 2004 for you. The Democrats gained control of the Colorado legislature November 2. Hey hey hey.

So right, it’s good that dapper Franz Ferdinand invaded and weird young Modest Mouse flowered into goofy older Mickey Mouse — good too, kind of, that each revived the venture-capital model in which major labels wager seed money on bands who are in it for the music, kind of. Congrats to the not-for-profit Grey Album, Danger Mouse’s illegal mash-up of Jay-Z (corporate honcho throws self on open market) and the Beatles (corporate keepers brandish attorneys). Thank Jack White for refurbishing Loretta Lynn and U2 for refurbishing war-is-over-if-you-want-it. The Streets’ Mike Skinner warmed up for his Booker Prize, and with input from some Texan carpetbaggers, our nonfascist neighbor to the north generated an alt-rock sleeper cell worthy of its overwrought raves. And who can fault Green Day, whose “punk opera” not only revived their sales but got nominated for an album Grammy while calling Americans the idiots they are?

All but one of these are admirable records. But I wish I could swear they belong in the same paragraph with The College Dropout and SMiLE. Maybe the Arcade Fire’s Funeral, whose unabashed loveliness and complex tone could portend something wider ranging, or just grander. But the U2 is the genial front job any reality-based assessment would predict, the Franz Ferdinand and Modest Mouse are lightweight on purpose without achieving buoyancy, and I’m not the first listener to reluctantly conclude that A Grand Don’t Come for Free, Van Lear Rose, and The Grey Album read better than they sound. And then there’s American Idiot. In a year when pop musicians politicized with unprecedented unanimity —  Nashville alone pro-Bush, many actively opposing the reactionaries and/or getting out the vote, and only a few rappers sidestepping Kerry on lefter-than-thou grounds — American Idiot was the sole Top 10 album to take a protesty tack, and got much love for it. But to my ears it founders on sodden songcraft — never mind Dookie, try the tunes on 2000’s neglected (and no less conscious) Warning — and half-congealed themes. Beyond some light name-calling (sharpest on the Japan-only B side “Governator”), the signature “Don’t want to be an American idiot” was as far as its politics went, because American Idiot is in substance an anti-political record. Ultimately, it’s about punk’s inability to change anything, even Billie Joe. That dull buildup you hear is the familiar sound of confusion taking itself seriously.

I impute this message of helplessness to the work of art, not its creator, who did also put a song on a Rock Against Bush comp. But where I’d rather get my art is Rock Against Bush itself — or NOFX’s 2003 The War on Errorism, not exactly Linton Kwesi Johnson but smarter than Green Day, even on “Idiots Are Taking Over.” Such smarts prove highly intermittent on our 2004 lists. They show up in Rilo Kiley’s CEO-targeting “It’s a Hit” and Tom Waits’s war-torn “Hoist That Rag” and Morrissey’s waspish “America Is Not the World,” in Nellie McKay’s wisecracks and the Drive-By Truckers’ worldview, in rumblings from U2 and TV on the Radio, in the hardcore rabble-rousing of Eminem’s “Mosh” and the vernacular conspiracy mongering of Jadakiss’s “Why?” And that’s about it. Odd, no? This was certainly the first presidential election in Pazz & Jop history to dominate artists’ and voters’ mindsets. Yet the election’s issues and personalities remained all but unaddressed by the music the poll honored. My guess is that this disconnect succumbs to the hoary fallacy — belied on my own list by Todd Snider, Jon Langford, Andre Tanker, Public Enemy and Moby — that “art” precludes “propaganda.” But for purposes of argument let me posit instead that it was deep-structural. All these passionate anti-Bushies kept on musicking as usual because they sensed that nothing less than the freedom to make and hear the precious stuff was at stake.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692781″ /]

In other words, we weren’t being “liberals,” striving to protect the unfortunate here and overseas. We were acting out of raw self-interest. Not just because plausible scenarios involving terrorist attack (remember terrorist attack?) could quickly transform our democracy into a bold-faced showpiece of postmodern fascism. Not just because some trade or currency wrinkle too boring to go into could impoverish us all. But because constitutional democracy, as conceived by those who now control its mechanisms, is being retooled to render your lifestyle and mine fiscally insupportable. Never mind Social Security, where “reform” would kick in slowly, sandbagging the young people now being told that boomers want to steal their payroll taxes. There’s a faster way to destroy the safety net, soaking states where rudiments of government for the people survive — namely, to abolish the federal tax deduction for state and local taxes in the name of balancing a budget squandered on the rich and Iraq, thus forcing blue states to slash human services and reducing their residents’ discretionary income. It’s enough to tempt your Democratic representative to add a buck in VAT to the price of every CD.

Math being for poobahs and Harvard M.B.A.’s, I apologize for burdening you with these apparently nonmusical abstractions. But Bush’s determination to compel all of us to compete Darwinistically for our semblance of comfort — to convert every American into a mini-capitalist or a serf — has musical consequences. The relevant goals, in this context, are the privatization of progress and the curtailment of leisure by forced attrition. By withdrawing from the human services sector, the government will dare do-gooders to put their money where their rhetoric is. And of course, every increase in work hours and reduction in discretionary income starves the music and film industries — which at their crassest remain stubbornly liberal — and shrinks the arts’ material base in academia, bohemia, and the helping professions. Collateral damage is a specialty of these robbers with fountain pens.

In such dire circumstances, going on about rock criticism and its discontents feels frivolous. Slogging through comments that included extensive selections from blogs I never read, I was often annoyed by the insularity of it all. Franz Ferdinand and Loretta Lynn, Usher and Devendra Banhart, Morrissey and Elliott Smith, “Redneck Woman” and The Grey Album, Hotlanta’s “Yeah!” and Metropolis’s “Yeah” — all big and rather different stories. Us content providers — many of the younger ones serfs unless backed up by school loans or parents or spouses or actual jobs (almost certainly underpaid if they’re editorial) — are expected to exploit the discretionary income of the better-compensated young by playing these stories for all they’re worth, meaning more than they’re worth, in the desperate hope that advertisers etc. And they served this function all too well. In every case I’ve just cited, the big stories came with overrated music.

Not bad, usually. But overrated — palpably limited in ambition, achievement, or both. With due respect to the pro-gay posture I pray they stick with — which isn’t required of the fabulous Scissor Sisters, who proved everything they had to in 15 minutes — Franz Ferdinand are a cautious little band compared even to their conceptual forebears the Strokes. Lynn stopped recording her own songs because “One’s on the Way” and “When the Tingle Becomes a Chill” were truer than “Portland Oregon” or, God help us, “God Makes No Mistakes.” The once precocious Usher is a cute sex object matured into the usual conniving pussy magnet; the permanently precocious Banhart is a female-identified weirdo-on-principle whose spontaneity is already a cultivated pose. Morrissey came back — from where, exactly? to what, exactly? Elliott Smith released a posthumous album very much like his prehumous albums, which not even the junkies manqué who love him claim had much life to them. Gretchen Wilson’s high-trash Tanya Tucker tribute is as painstakingly constructed as Danger Mouse’s time-seizing ’60s update, and neither is as convincing as it swears it is. “Hell yeah!” Gretchen’s sisters chorus on cue. “Yeah!” screams a 20-on-a-scale-of-10 shorty going all up on Usher, aware without thinking on it that if she don’t Luda will ejaculate her from his Jag. LCD Soundsystem’s lead cyborg sums up the collective dilemma after his girlies intone their own “Yeah”s: “Everybody keeps on talking about it/Nobody’s getting it done.” I just wish he’d added, “Including me.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”692777″ /]

Given the general craving for affirmation, it’s no wonder our 793 voters ratified artists who embraced their freedom to make music. Frequent finishers Wilco and Björk, Tom Waits and PJ Harvey withdrew deeper into private aesthetics — the first pair esoteric and obscurantist, the second spare and formalist. I found all four lacking but preferred the formalists; the electorate cheered them all on, favoring the obscurantists. Sonic Youth took both routes at once as usual, drawing out and smudging up their catchiest album since Dirty; Nick Cave wrote a few songs worthy of the real Leonard Cohen (not the imposter who came in 243rd) and stretched them into a double CD. Newcomers also received concept points that divided up mod and trad, with getting it done left for a better day. Live, Akron’s Black Keys extract massive blues from a guitar and a trap set, but composing in that style is a rare knack, so Rubber Factory scored on accrued rep and improved distribution. And though Brooklyn’s unkempt TV on the Radio may someday amount to more than 12th place in a critics’ poll, I wish their boosters would admit that they get race points too. Regularly credited with a funk and soul imperceptible to the unseeing ear, they’re the first African American rock band of critical consequence since Living Colour put the Black Rock Coalition into practice 15 years ago, and while Vernon Reid’s Yohimbe Brothers (zero mentions) flow better, flow doesn’t “rock.”

Cultivating the most private aesthetic of all was the year’s major underground trend. So disdainful of the literal that it’s effectively apolitical even when it wishes otherwise, the artier-than-thou traditionalism of psych-folk is a hippie revival rooted in acoustic eccentrics I’d hoped were behind me three decades ago, from the Incredible String Band and Tim Buckley down to Essra Mohawk and I see where one site is hawking Kay Huntington, whose atrocious album may still be in my storage space (yours for $200 to the privatized progressives of my choice, folkies — how about the American Negro College Fund?). Psych-folk enrages some of my younger colleagues, but I’m too old to feel threatened — Devendra Banhart’s talent is quirkier and less pretentious than Buckley’s (not just Tim’s, Jeff’s), and the poetic acrobatics and pure brainpower of the equally arch Joanna Newsom just go to show that in these fragmented times any scene can generate a visionary.

These paired hereditary bohemians represent psych-folk uncut, but other finishers are close allies, as are 52nd-place Christian Sufjan Stevens, so much prettier and deeper than 48th-place ex-Christian Sam Bean. (41–50: electronica standard-bearers Junior Boys, electronica salesmen Air, tape-eating Walkmen, Alicia “Legs” Keys, tweaker-folk Mountain Goats, party girl Gretchen Wilson, new wave popsters Futureheads, d/b/a Iron & Wine, new wave art-rockers Secret Machines, prescription-only Ted Leo.) Though the Fiery Furnaces identify rock, their roots riffs, opaque verbiage, and whimsical air cross-market them as effectively as if they’d planned it. The vaguely tribal Animal Collective muster more charm if less skill than the Incredible String Band. And Nellie McKay has nothing to do with the trend at all — except that she’s a trad-avant acoustic singer-songwriter who’s vegetarian too. It’s enough to convince you that fame-averse obscurantism is psych-folk’s essential ingredient.

Or maybe to indicate that, a few separatists notwithstanding, this wasn’t much of a year for disengagement. McKay’s hunger for a public presence counts as defiance in a state bent on repression. Of course alt-rock made a showing. A.C. Newman’s solo record outran Neko Case’s solo record; the Libertines took their falling-apart-in-front-of-your-eyes act so far that Pete Doherty withdrew from view, a confusing effect. The Arcade Fire are neither hype nor fluke, and though they could choose art-rock vainglory, they could also prove world leaders. But only Craig Finn’s Hold Steady went alt all the way — Almost Killed Me could pass for a concept album about the circuit, and although Finn’s storytelling has lost a few twists since Lifter Puller, I wish his Pushcart Prize bid well unless John Darnielle enters the Mountain Goats. But he sure didn’t write better than the Drive-By Truckers, who put out a slightly subpar album in half the time it would have taken most bands to write half the material and toured like they were the Allman Brothers, or than Rilo Kiley, who secured major-label distribution for an album keyed to catchier songs than “Take You Out” if not “Somebody Told Me.” And then there were the Blairniks of Interpol, who began their album with a hopeful “We ain’t going to the town/We’re going to the city,” only to demonstrate why exurbanites flee the city and vote Republican to keep it away from their doors. “See the living that surrounds me/Dissipate in a violent race,” their charting “Slow Hands” goes. Exactly what the exurbs are afraid of. City people dance to that? Sick, just sick.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692774″ /]

Nevertheless, all over a theoretical pop/semipop realm I’ll dub the Republic of Crunk Guitar, city people were dancing. Crunk guitar is theoretical not least because the guitars that color the sexist party hip-hop signified by the soon-passé “crunk” are dirty and metallic while the guitars (and synthesizers) that propelled young rockers onto the floor in surprising numbers are clean and electronic. The conflation merely insists that, no matter how loudly and justifiably their adherents and adversaries bitch and moan, for quite a while the putatively opposed worlds of hip-hop and alt/indie-rock have both been good to us. They’re often escapist and that makes me bitch and moan. But I never forget, or regret, that human beings have always treasured music for the escape it affords.

In 2004, hip-hop, consistently underrepresented in our poll and by now declared dead as regularly as rock, nevertheless produced a second straight No. 1 album. Though the voters came out stronger for OutKast, I’ll take Kanye’s guaranteed pop-soul hooks, modest flow, saving cameos, group-focused vision, and dynamite sense of humor; hip to modern serfdom and too decent to peddle thug domination fantasies, he renders nerdiness at once cute and racially credible while mocking the lie that it will get the oppressed what they deserve. A sharp dip in r&b party anthems on our singles chart suggests that as hip-hop’s commercial dominance gets old, its crassness looks worse. But we still signed off on a healthy complement of major and indie hip-hop albums. I rate Nas (59th) and the slept-on Mos Def (77th) over the belatedly beloved Ghostface, and in addition to the three worthy albums released by this year’s indie-rap fave, MF Doom (whose Madlib collab Madvillainy was No. 11), recommend the Bay Area’s arch-in-his-disgusting-way Z Man and Vancouver’s sincere-in-his-businesslike-way McEnroe. In London, Mike Skinner’s lit rode vocal dramatics that recalled without resembling the declamations of Ghostface and Chuck D, and Dizzee Rascal’s up-and-at-’em made music of the scrawny techno-dancehall derivative that is grime. I also enjoyed ex-Detroiter Eminem, who was edged out by the competing white beatmasters of NYC’s DFA.

Besotted with Franz Ferdinand’s No. 1 single, some might argue that r&b party music was undercut by DOR — dance-oriented rock, kids, so abbreviated well before Duran Duran glitzed their way into your impressionable sensoriums. But the singles chart reveals dance music from every-which-where, with DOR just one component: the Killers’ brazenly mechanical “Somebody Told Me,” the Scissor Sisters for the moment and Gwen Stefani forever, some count “Float On,” and let us not forget those Blairniks. Rather than danceability, what distinguishes our rock albums is chart clout. Of course Pazz & Joppers always like bands that sell a little, and here’s hoping if not predicting that they’ll always have Hold Steadys to get hot for. Rock radio continues to die, too. But the Franz Ferdinand–Green Day–Modest Mouse trifecta constitutes an uptick. Teenpop having given way to American idolization, which will also run its course, the surviving megalabels are pursuing saner long-term musical investment strategies on a playing field where indies are entrenched, prices have fallen, and downloading is a progressive force. If the world wasn’t coming to an end, this might equal reason to be cheerful.

Admittedly, it makes me feel a little better anyway. But there’s only so happy you can get about the Killers. So allow me to promote more far-ranging escapes — starting with, of all things, a longshot country finisher. Big & Rich are a bit wet for my tastes; though they usefully exemplify the varieties of Christian experience, that Jesus song is just too corny. But their irreverence and appetite are such a relief in a Nashville that’s gynephobic and xenophobic when it’s rowdy at all. Gretchen Wilson is lucky to have met them, and not only that — you just know they’d appreciate Piracy Funds Terrorism, the 23rd-place bootleg mix Floridian-Philadelphian Diplo imposed on the forthcoming album by Sri Lankan–British singer-toaster M.I.A. M.I.A.’s eighth-place bhangra-dancehall-grime “Galang” is only the most explicitly every-which-where of dance singles that include crunk lite from a peripatetic Army brat, ragga lite from Queens-based Puerto Rican–I-think twins, trash lite from queens doing their Elton John impression, blues-rap featuring an avant-garde trumpeter doing his Muddy Waters impression, fragile Norwegian-blond Europop, Blairniks, and DFA. Eclecticism/internationalism has long been dance music’s way, but it intensified in 2004, and I trust its timing will keep getting better without further encouragement or explication from me.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692652″ /]

Sometimes, however, explication deepens enjoyment as well as enlarging the mind. I’d love the Diplo boot more if it raided the Middle as well as the Far East, the way Hispanic/multiracial hip-hoppers and 1998 Pazz & Jop finishers Ozomatli did to jump-start their mysteriously-or-maybe-not 208th-place Street Signs. That’s why I was so pleased that Youssou N’Dour’s Egypt finished 34th. Always Islamic, N’Dour knows he’s heard as merely African by the Americans and Europeans whose musics he’s assimilated. So as a political act, the Senegalese Mouridist claimed Muslim by recording in Cairo. This uncommonly pointed one-worldism sinks deeper when you read not just the notes but the linked info at the Nonesuch website. The most gorgeous album of N’Dour’s career celebrates an Islamic culture more humane than any fundamentalist one, or than the secular compromises putative liberals like Thomas Friedman pump. It’s more humane than Nashville’s culture, too — and, sometimes, NYC’s.

In part, I know, my pessimism about America reflects my age. At 62, I had my expectations primed back when the goal of a humane society was axiomatic, and at 62, I deeply resent the prospect of spending my golden years battling goons who hate everything I’ve lived for. So it’s salutory to replay The College Dropout — a record I once foolishly feared would wear thin — and hear Kanye’s kiddies wickedly chorus, “We wasn’t supposed to make it past 25/Joke’s on you we still alive.” That’s how it goes with social disasters. They get worse than the crack epidemic, but not so’s the end of the world is actually the end of the world — not even after a suitcase nuke, or the worst-case consequences of dumping the Kyoto accords. All year I remembered Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music, where slaves jamming their stinking barracones and then blacks crowding their overtaxed barrios musick defiantly anyway. Keeping it real f’real, West’s songs import that impulse into modern African American life — music is a dream that waxes and wanes, something folks will steal because it’s something folks live for. His good cheer assumes his people will get squeezed half to death, and won’t stop won’t stop anyway. Politically, he shows more smarts and better instincts than any finisher except N’Dour and the Drive-By Truckers.

Brian Wilson’s good cheer proceeded from a deeper sense of entitlement yet proved deeply fragile — he broke down well before the ’60s did. But the luck of career development impelled him to re-examine his own flowering, and though my aversion to ’60s nostalgia knows no bounds, his political timing couldn’t have been better. Nostalgia is for the weak-minded, but history is forgotten by those who find out too late why Karl Rove name-checks William McKinley. Smiley Smile was always wonderful, and psych-folkies may want to know that it’s more eccentric than SMiLE. But SMiLE is a history lesson, one that’s only rendered more vivid and persuasive by how silly it is, and also by how worn Wilson’s voice is. The beauty it achieves regardless — the apotheosis of the Beach Boys’ trick of respecting and undermining their music lessons simultaneously — defines the cultural space where the freedom to make and hear precious music was and remains unquestioned if not uncompromised. As in all works of art, that space is a fiction, or anyway a construction. But it’s worth battling for.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 2004

1. Kanye West: The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella)

2. Brian Wilson: SMiLE (Nonesuch)

3. Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose (Interscope)

4. Franz Ferdinand: Franz Ferdinand (Domino/Epic)

5. Green Day: American Idiot (Reprise)

6. The Arcade Fire: Funeral (Merge)

7. The Streets: A Grand Don’t Come for Free (Vice/Atlantic)

8. U2: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope)

9. Modest Mouse: Good News for People Who Love Bad News (Epic)

10. Danger Mouse: The Grey Album (

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 2004

1. Franz Ferdinand: “Take Me Out” (Domino)

2. Jay-Z: “99 Problems” (Roc-A-Fella)

3. Usher featuring Lil Jon and Ludacris: “Yeah!” (Arista)

4. Modest Mouse: “Float On” (Epic)

5. Britney Spears: “Toxic” (Jive)

6. Kanye West: “Jesus Walks” (Roc-A-Fella)

7. Snoop Dogg featuring Pharrell: “Drop It Like It’s Hot” (Doggystyle/Geffen/Star Trak)

8. M.I.A.: “Galang” (XL)

9. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: “Maps” (Interscope)

10. U2: “Vertigo” (Interscope)

—From the February 9–15, 2005, issue


Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.


Pazz & Jop: This Is Black Genius?

It’s hard to hate on what the mainstreamiest skinfolk were diggin’ into in 2018. On its face, it seems they’ve been getting into each other. If scrolling through this year’s Pazz & Jop rankings tells us anything, it’s that the collapsing of technological, aesthetic, and networking barriers between the music industry and Hollywood resulted in a celebration of seamless branding. The Black Brunches at the tippy-top are paying off. In a time where conscious consumption and demands for Black entertainment hit threat-level orange, everybody Black seemed to be rooting for everybody Black. And for better or worse, it’s working. Donald Glover — whose virtuosity played transistor through which this year’s charged Black music (as Childish Gambino) and Black visuals (with Atlanta) often ionized — tops this year’s singles list off the strength of the interweaving gloss and shock on “This Is America.” Following recent big-screen appearances in Hidden Figures and Moonlight, Janelle Monáe coded Dirty Computer, effectively kicking through the ceiling and high-stepping up out the closet and clocking in with the number two album and number two single; Kendrick Lamar, meanwhile, didn’t even release a proper album this year (his last two both topped P&J) yet makes the singles list after banking off the Cali conneck with Ryan Coogler and helping soundtrack the year’s most spectacularized Black product, Black Panther.

[related_posts post_id_1=”707080″ /]

Each of these aforementioned artists has been labeled a Black Genius™ in one way or another. Glover as the “solitary male genius” in the mold of Kanye West, hailed for his mind and malleability. Monáe as the revved-up engine of Black femme grace and queer womanhood attempting to redefine what genius looks and sounds like. And Lamar as the Pulitzer Prize–winner, celebrated for his brilliant wordplay, multitudinous performance, and ferocious rhyme-scheming. Each has the ear and consideration of Black and white audiences alike, crafting a vision of Blackness and Black “transgression” that is legible and hugely profitable to a largely white industry. In today’s culture, as Long Beach rapper Vince Staples quips, “You ain’t crackin’ right now if you ain’t got no black something.” These days, the separation between the wheat and the chaff comes down to the genius label. 

The 2010s have presented the transmissive and transgressive modes of Black musical genius on multiple points along a spectrum: in Lamar’s chaotic free-flow rap-witnessing and defiant live performances; in Beyoncé’s unabashed appeal to down-home Blackness and poignantly subversive feminism at this year’s Coachella; in Kanye West’s self-sustaining engine of aesthetic and musical output (through which he became this decade’s Black genius du jour); in Glover’s banally provocative “This Is America” and Monáe’s Afrofuturist posturing on Dirty Computer. If the multiplicity of approaches suggests a progression in accepting the various and overlapping realities of Black life, the critical response (read: who we as an audience deem “genius”) still represents a simplistic, gendered, and classed view of virtuosity and artistic autonomy. Who is considered a Black genius is wrapped within the presentation of Blackness as attractive, abrasive, “unapologetic,” or abject.

Genius, especially of the artistic flavor, infers both signifying and self-fashioning. Ingenuity implies innovation — a glimpse into the future of form using the materials available in the present. Before the Black voice was beloved, Louis Armstrong’s horn could at once skew soteriological and shambolic. Satchmo reimagined the standard, and set new ones for Duke Ellington and the rest of those heads at the Cotton Club. Miles Davis blew till he was blue in the face, and sinewed Black America to its mainland African cousins in what Amiri Baraka terms America’s musical “rhythm bed.” These cultural icons elicited huge praise from white jazz critics who, in the late Fifties, mirrored the ethos of New Criticism in literature. White audiences buzzed off those jazz cats, and as the form was subsumed, new Black faces covered in sheeny sweat took over: The Stevies, JBs, Princes, and MJs soundtracked the new virtuosity, which had to include the sweaty, somatic, hip- and head-rolling vibe of the time. Prince’s and Stevie’s multi-instrumentalist, know-it-all, do-it-all mode provided the frame that that middle-class, Midwest producer-kid Kanye West filled for the majority of his career.

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

It’s no coincidence that every genius who sees glory in their own time is a straight man. Consider that the progenitor and generator of the rhythm and blues form, Big Mama Thornton, didn’t receive her flowers till she was decades under the grave. Aretha got her roses a generation too late, the genius of her voice and autodidactic instrumentalism only truly celebrated after she passed. Alice Coltrane, it can be argued, was the one pushing John to do all that weird shit that ended up becoming his most lasting contribution.

In 2018, the contours of major success were formed around presenting an understanding of the sonics and images that “start a conversation” without having to necessarily add anything new or refreshing to that conversation. The most blatant examples of this are two singles that dominated streaming services off the strength of punchy videos that spoke to a growing awareness of “feminist aesthetic” and self-involved philanthropy: Drake’s “Nice for What” and “God’s Plan,” the latter a looping mess of quick quippy rhymes, with a video that’s an easily read publicity stunt if watched more than once. But no one this year won off stunting quite like Donald Glover.

Glover’s upbringing in Stone Mountain, Georgia, subsequent matriculation to NYU, early white-’n’-nerdy humor and music shtick, as well as his role on NBC’s Communitysituated him as a Black-whisperer amongst white friends. It wasn’t until 2016’s Parliament-inspired Awaken, My Love! and the “unapologetically Black” FX show Atlanta that Glover began to be viewed by Black audiences as someone potentially approaching the visionary stratosphere of Kendrick, Beyoncé, and Janelle. But unlike those artists, Glover-as-Gambino hadn’t made a concerted appeal to Black audiences specifically. His work seemed concerned with boosting his status as the multihyphenate artist-of-the-day. Glover, as Jordan Peele quipped to the New Yorker, is attempting to make “elevated Black shit,” though there is hardly anything innovative about “This Is America.” Craig Jenkins, writing for Vulture, opined that compared to Atlanta and Awaken, My Love!, “This Is America” is fascinating yet facile: “Glover is smarter than this. Atlanta is smarter than this. Most arch black art flourishing now under the ever-present white American gaze is more careful than this.”

The video’s overt symbolism has been the subject of a torrent of deep reads and “stories behind stories speaking to the “necessity” of the work in today’s racial climate. For whom the video is necessary is subjective. The video’s most widely discussed images — Glover summoning a pistol to murder a hooded Black man and an assault rifle to mow down a Black church choir — is deemed genius by some and conveniently cynical by others.

[related_posts post_id_1=”712119″ /]

Because the song itself is a disarray of punchy lyrics and chaotic sound, it’s fair to ask how “This Is America” would fare if the video wasn’t so lustrously traumatic. Shot beautifully by Atlanta director Hiro Murai, the video captures the sweaty viscerality of “unapologetic” Blackness in Glover’s warping facial expressions and dance steps, as well as the sudden synchronicity of Black death. Glover’s playing of both sides is undermined, however, by a lack of consideration and mourning for those lost. Maybe that’s the point. But it’s worth asking whether that point was worth the psychic trauma. I talked to costume designer, stylist, and Columbia, South Carolina, native Clark DeBarry about the video — which she could only watch once because of its triggering nature — who said that she felt Glover didn’t really sit with the terror South Carolinians lived through after the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. “It didn’t feel like Black people were being put in the forefront to receive whatever message he was trying to put out,” said DeBarry. “The public was very quick to label it iconic.… I was very confused about him being labeled a genius.”  

The video dips an entire leg into a kind of Black exploitation that profits from the “performative wokeness” that’s swallowed public discourse this year. Glover has been noticeably quiet about the discussions surrounding the video, electing to allow his audience to interpret it however they see fit. He’s fully in his right as an artist to do so, but as someone trying to show an investment in Black people’s experiences, killing a bunch of unnamed Blacks without warning and without mourning seems more hurtful than poignant.

The genius label suggests an interplay between artist, critic, and audience that Black artists navigate with various levels of consciousness. During her promo run ahead of Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe spoke about her sexual evolution — coming out as pansexual in a Rolling Stone cover story, no less. As such, Dirty Computer has been hailed as Monáe’s first true masterpiece. It’s a curious distinction, as her earlier work not only features the multilayered sonics and storytelling of previous “geniuses” but the ideological depth that should’ve catapulted her into the stratosphere. Maybe all she was waiting for was the blessing of the reigning Black genius. Before his death in 2016, Prince lent his guitar to Monáe’s “Make Me Feel,” tied for the number two single on P&J this year. Like Kendrick’s posthumous détente with Tupac on To Pimp a Butterfly, Monáe is speaking across time to other geniuses — namely Stevie Wonder on “Stevie’s Dream”— and placing herself along that continuum generally works to her benefit. She largely lets her work do the talking, but who she’s talking to matters just as much as the content itself.

Monáe revealing the mystery of her sexuality by publicly coming out is at once an act of self-fulfillment and clever marketing on her part. Following her roles on Moonlight and Hidden Figures, Monáe’s star has never shone brighter. Answering the questions regarding her queerness through Dirty Computers pre-release videos — and the companion sci-fi film of the same name — only generated more buzz among fans and newcomers alike. Still, trying to represent and celebrate the fullness of her identity is a political tightrope. The video for her breezy, gumdrop song “Pynk” came under scrutiny online for what seemed like a narrow construction of womanhood: Monáe and her backup dancers sporting what’s been facetiously termed “pussy pants” garnered a healthy backlash. After all, the critics carped, not all women have vaginas, or necessarily pink ones, at that. Reading a work solely for what it doesn’t do, who it doesn’t see, without contextualizing how it fits within a larger industry is a rather deficient way of critiquing art, however. “Pynk” is refreshing in an art scene full of men we consider geniuses who hardly ever celebrate women and the parts that make up women — physical, spiritual, or otherwise — in any meaningful way.

Glover’s and Monáe’s work — the particular criticisms that follow, and their respective responses — highlight how artistic demands dovetail with our feedback. Glover wants to be taken seriously, so he positions himself and his crew beyond reproach, beyond his audience’s touch. As such, the mystique and ethic he’s cultivated is praised and tabbed “genius.” Monáe tried that with her earlier work and failed to receive the same respect — the ArchAndroid suite still conjures emotional responses from her listeners; there is hardly any working artist who portrays falling in love in the midst of the apocalypse so remarkably. Of course, genius, mystique, and autonomy are warped by a patriarchal order that undervalues Black women, queer and non-binary folks, and poor people’s work at every turn. Monáe shows a propensity to listen to her audience. She repeatedly expressed concern with what her “early fans and very religious and very Southern family” would think about her sexuality during an interview with the New York Times’ Jenna Wortham last month. “Right now I’m escaping the gravity of the labels that people have tried to place on me that have stopped my evolution,” she said.

[related_posts post_id_1=”573342″ /]

But both the music industry and the social conditions surrounding it are changing, and that means we’re defining genius differently than we have in the past. Genius, even if it’s socially constructed, is a nonlinear evolution — Kanye West is a prime example of the progression and regression that can happen over time. It’s close, but the Louis Vuitton Don is perhaps the most successful artist in the history of Pazz & Jop. Much like that of Glover, Monáe, and Lamar, Kanye’s art was so obviously concerned with Blackness — one circumscribed by its male-dominated, middle-class demographic, but Blackness nonetheless. Some things haven’t changed since 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: Ye’s still a hardcore soul samplephile, albeit with a few postpunk interpolations tossed into the mix as well. But the furious circus surrounding his Trumpism and ahistorical imaginings of African oppression has turned everyone off. Whether it’s from the prescription drug dosage or the reality-TV teachings of his in-laws, West’s work is completely vapid these days: As loud as he is on Twitter and IRL, his incoherent music has remarkably little to say. And he isn’t alone. Drake’s Scorpion, which featured a couple of cute singles drowned out by a thick layer of throwaway tracks, came and went. And Kanye played roulette with the most prominent figures in the G.O.O.D. Music stable, electing to release weekly seven-song tapes in lieu of focusing on an album or a posse cut that could’ve showcased its members’ talents together more seamlessly. The two most influential male rappers of the decade seemed to finally overextend themselves. But this year, more promising names took the stage and exclaimed a self-assuredness that is part and parcel to ingenuity.

Artists like Tierra Whack, whose 29th-ranked, 15-minute Whack World adds another wrinkle to the “album” model. Most of her songs feature a one-minute running time, and were melded together for a long-form music video that introduced her as a wunderkind who’s not only securely in her bag, but also interested in the ethic of cohesion that “contemporary genius” implies. The singularity of her ideas and her self-created world portend a curious and promising future. Her sound is weird, full of guts and approachable, while her visuals — for which she has been nominated for a Grammy — suggest a mind that’s fun, frazzled, and colorful. It feels like Whack can sing or spit on anything from a trap beat to a meandering acoustic guitar with no trouble at all. And unlike previous virtuosic artists, Philly’s resident surrealist doesn’t lay the shit on thick. Where others opted for boasting singularity, Whack displayed a brilliance that is less a barrage than an unraveling tapestry that seems satisfied with just playing around in our heads for a little while.

Expanding the parameters of Black genius means emphasizing the contributions of artists leading long-lasting cultural shifts. That means, necessarily — sometimes retroactively — honoring the dual-headed dance-punk femmes Santigold and Kelis, who cracked the sonic door in Europe, allowing future artists like Azealia Banks and Monáe to walk on through. It requires that we parse out the classed notions of genius as well, highlighting artists like Chicago rapper Chief Keef, who laid the groundwork for drill’s mainstream upheaval; like Memphis, Tennessee’s 3 Six Mafia, who popularized the triplet rhyme scheme dominating radio play and streaming playlists today; or like Odd Future, a bunch of excitable kids who captured the pathos of drug-addled, disillusioned adolescence through shock music, and then followed it up a decade later with thoughtful renderings of queerness both in music and fashion. Like Noname, whose Room 25 compounds the strong cohesion she put on display on her previous work, 2016’s Telefone. In the past, understanding these artists through social contexts of “violent” or “nontraditional” upbringings worked against the communities that bred them. Their uniqueness proved harmful.

The jury is still out on whether unglossy ingenuity will elicit praise from this generation of listeners. History proves that any determination of Black genius requires an interrogation of its function — who the term celebrates and the protections it provides beloved but potentially harmful figures. Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement is helpful in this analysis. As are the volume of writers, critics, and thinkers who are problematizing celebrity culture, working to resist the dangerous ego-boosting, critical consensus that strengthens exceptionalism and reinforces existing inequalities within and without Black communities. So far, the “Black excellence” of the day is largely Middle Class Problems™, and while that speaks to a certain kind of progress, it also suggests a severing. Nowhere, not on OWN, not on BET, not on HBO, not on FX, not on the radio nor the playlist — nowhere are the stories of Black poor and working-class folks receiving glory. Works like Moonlight and DAMN are exceptions that prove the rule. And that is not simply a massive oversight but a detriment to those living those lives. Which is, actually, the majority of Black people.

Donald, Janelle, and Kendrick are informed by Black artistic communities of the past — the Nikki Giovannis, Maya Angelous, Amiri Barakas, James Baldwins, and W.E.B. Du Boises of the world — but, in their own ways and to their own degrees, they have partitioned themselves from the audiences those cultural giants aimed to encourage. Indeed, they’re winning. Our trust in their contemporary-funk voices has yet to really wane, and rightfully so. They haven’t swerved onto the Ye-route. They’ll be all over our television screens during this Sunday’s Grammy Awards; their nominations will be held as a sign of progress in the white mainstream, as such nominations have for the last fifty years. But in the past, following the commandments to secure thine bag has cut off the top performing artists from the people they are said to speak for. We felt that in droves in 2018. Now comes the reckoning.


Kanye West Turns the Page

It is 2045 and the protagonist of Bruce Sterling’s 1998 novel Distraction, a young pol named Oscar Valparaiso who happens to be a clone, repairs to a half-wrecked Louisiana town where the beach houses were long ago moved up into an abandoned cow pasture. As he sups on a genetically altered crayfish the size of a lobster, a string quartet strikes up a minuet: “Typical Anglo ethnic music. It was amazing how many Anglos had gone into the booming classical music scene. Anglos seemed to have some talent for rigid, linear music that less troubled ethnic groups couldn’t match.” But never fear. Though the Chinese have destroyed the U.S. economy by putting all our software online, life remains “doable” in this “big, hot, Greenhouse swamp”; as one Cajun operative puts it, “The women are good-lookin’, and the music really swings!” And though many harbor a bias against Anglos — “the most violent ethnic group in America,” with “white-collar crime rates right off the charts” — the best pop music in the world comes from the Netherlands, where holding off the sea is a way of life. Distraction was on my mind in re the 32nd or 33rd Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll because it glances off two key but apparently unrelated 2005 music stories. One of these is obvious. Though Nonesuch’s 129th-place Our New Orleans 2005 will go down in history as the finest charity comp since Red Hot & Blue, Katrina didn’t make our album list, poking through only on two singles: the Legendary K.O.’s 15th-place “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People,” which turned our big winner’s greatest soundbite into an online protest rap that easily outpolled the Bright Eyes download “When the President Talks to God,” and Amerie’s No. 2 “1 Thing,” which came marching in behind an indestructible Ziggy Modeliste beat.

The other story is subtler: what Sterling jocularly slots as Anglo ethnic music. We have long-standing quasi-symphonist Kate Bush at 25 and newcoming Gilbert & Sullivan fans the Decemberists at 33, chamber-pop Stars getting all Canadian on our ass at 37 and Suzuki-method violinist-cum-fiddler Andrew Bird blinding them with science down at 49. We have the new/ny/nuevo prog of System of a Down at 30 and Dungen at 31 and the Mars Volta at 45, the glacial kitsch of Sigur Rós below the sonar at 50 and the parlor-cum-chamber faux gentility/nouveau sincerity of Antony and the Johnsons over the top at 7. And we have three of the five highest finishers engaging 19th-century European notions of orchestration and musicianship: not just Sufjan Stevens’s No. 3 Illinois, but also two that owe concertmeister to the stars Jon Brion. One of these was his old protégée Fiona Apple, who hired Mike Elizondo to get Brion swingin’ before she ran Extraordinary Machine up to No. 5. The other was our hands-down artist of the year, the first consecutive-poll repeat winner since the Clash in 1980 and 1981. You knew who it would be before the paper came out: Kanye West.

There’s more to be said about Anglo ethnic music, and New Orleans too. Both dwarf Kanye West. But they’re whole traditions. He’s a single artist — which doesn’t mean a singles artist, though this year he won in that category as well. Not to hang too much off a two-album oeuvre, but having cruised to first place with The College Dropout last year, West did well just to release a follow-up in 2005. That Late Registration should prove his second consecutive full-length to come on strong and then keep getting better makes him look like one of those rare “actual genius” singer-songwriters that singles consumer advocate Joshua Clover considers an inadequate excuse for our hero-hyping electoral ritual. With The College Dropout it was jokes that remained funny while they got serious; with Late Registration it’s music so rich you never tire of unlayering its meanings. Brion contributes mostly synthesizer parts exploited for organic color — the violent violins that rev “Crack Music” three minutes in are an atypically explicit case. The famed arranger ceded the actual arranging to West, who absorbs Brion’s European bent into a basically black flow. And you’d best believe this Panther’s son with the line of credit at Jacob and Co. is basically black.

I’ve had it with the caviling. In a year when the fashion in hip-hop realness was a grotesque crack nostalgia — powered, in the case of Young Jeezy (No. 39 album) and Three 6 Mafia (No. 10 single), by Anglo-ethnic victory-fanfare and scary-strings beats whose wholly ‘hood authenticity was indistinguishable from their Hollywood schlockitude — moralistic sellouts have got it going on. Knowing you’re the best isn’t arrogance, and knowing what’s right doesn’t require a vow of poverty. The guy rhymes about conflict diamonds and self-appointed Africanists interrogate his annotation; he blurts — or plans out, more power to him if so — an ugly truth about our hideous president and is taken to task for not constructing a platform around it. Then there are the wheezes about his workaday rapping skills, and hey, he’s not the handsomest fellow you ever saw. So let’s bring it.

On the evidence, Kanye West is nothing less than the young century’s most gifted popular musician. Everything indicates a decent man who’s canny about putting his decency into artistic practice — the widespread misapprehension that the poll-topping “Gold Digger” is “sexist” is one of many proofs that he’s smarter than his critics. His rhymes have enormous emotional range — the one about his dying grandma chokes me up every time — and when he falls in love he will write interesting songs about it. Not only that, West produced two other finishers in his spare time: Common’s well-spoken 15th-place Be and John Legend’s super-ordinary 27th-place Get Lifted. He’s turned himself into such a cultural presence that his cameos on these albums are musical highlights — he’s more the voice of common sense than the former Common Sense is.

Yet for all that, this was, extry extry, our closest poll ever — proportionally, Late Registration‘s 107-point margin was the narrowest in Pazz & Jop history. With two more critics voting than in 2004 (795, yet another record!), West’s sophomore album gathered 18 fewer mentions and 301 fewer points, while M.I.A.’s Arular beat Brian Wilson’s 2004 finish by 54 mentions and 284 points. So give it up as well to another critics’ rapper: Kanye’s contemporary, 28-year-old Maya Arulpragasam. The U.K.-based Sri Lankan embodies progressive tendencies and grand old P&J traditions. One of three female artists in the top five (sole precedent: Phair-Harvey-Breeders 1993), she is a political provocateur-obsessive who, like West, comes from radical stock, only where West’s revolutionary dad became a marriage counselor hers became a terrorist. She is also an art-schooler turned working visual artist who learned music by fashioning club beats in her bedroom.

M.I.A.’s cheeky flow and slang-tangy rhymes bounce across her beat peaks like she has a right. And crucially, her formerly-known-as-grime has tunes, childish chants anyone can hum. But she’s no rap Art Brut, who are a classic Ramones-model song band — M.I.A.’s tunes serve banging sounds. Align her formally with Congo’s 24th-place Konono No 1, avant-primitives by acclamation whose crudely amped thumb piano and junk percussion generated deeper trance in Brussels than Kinshasa, and with four kiddie-friendly entities: Danger Doom, in which a word-drunk MF Doom alt-raps to Cartoon Network buddies over a comfy Danger Mouse groove; the Go! Team, whose stolen pop tunelets and schoolyard chants get hyperactive over a storm of drums and samples; Deerhoof, who set Satomi Matsuzaki’s high little voice and dream lyrics against proggily structured noise-rock songs whose melodies esteem the simplistic; and — though they already show signs of growing up — the ecstatic campfire freak-folk of Animal Collective. Call these artists the avant-garde opposition. As of now, all except Deerhoof are formally antagonistic to Anglo ethnic music, but only incidentally — their first concern is breaking the guitar-band template. With or without that mysterious soupçon of gotcha, other newcomers’ variations are familiar — Bloc Party’s fashionable tightness, Art Brut’s audacious autohype, Wolf Parade’s double-lead cacophony, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s nerdy power surges, Stars’ young-modern sophistication, the National’s boom and gloom.

This polarity — eclectic neoclassicism versus usually beat-oriented, usually childhood-oriented avant-primitivism, with a bunch of indie/alt newbies in the middle — is a more extreme version of Pazz & Jop’s old song-versus-rhythm schema. But what’s most extreme about it is that almost every artist I’ve named had yet to hit our poll before 2000. Once upon a time Pazz & Jop gave off a whiff of old fart — every damn Van Morrison and XTC album would edge onto our list, and as recently as 1992, nine of the top 20 instead of the customary four-five-six were by veteran repeaters. In 2005, there were three. Newly anointed oldsters Monk-Coltrane and Bettye LaVette don’t count, and neither do newly anointed world-beaters Amadou & Mariam. Nor do artists whose pre-2000 output didn’t chart (Common, Spoon) or even get noticed (Bright Eyes, My Morning Jacket). That leaves resurgent-on-principle Sleater-Kinney, young Fiona Apple, and 1996 winner Beck, whose return to whatever finished 17th.

[related_posts post_id_1=”418328″ /]

Beck and Sleater-Kinney rank with Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Wilco (2005 live album 91st), Lucinda Williams (2005 live album three mentions), Bj (2005 soundtrack one mention), and Yo La Tengo (2005 comp one mention) as ’90s-based perennials in the Morrison-XTC manner. They finish higher because they still command consensus, an ever rarer thing. Nevertheless, they constitute a rather modest cohort, from which the Roots, 148th-place Stephen Malkmus, 61st-place Madonna (though “Hung Up” scored), and now 95th-place Missy Elliott have apparently departed. This endurance shortage reflects the megabiz crackdown on long-term catalog investments. But it also bespeaks a younger electorate tied to the Web as both writers and consumers. It’s like when three music weeklies competed for the Britfan’s fad-impaired attention span by putting new next big things on their smudgy covers every other issue, only sped up. In principle, file sharing and music blogs mean we can all listen to everything for nothing, and let’s-start-a-webzine content provision exploits what New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki calls “the wisdom of crowds.” Unfortunately for audiotopia, listening happens in real time, something even the nuttiest netcrits don’t have enough of, in part because there’s too much music out there and in part because they’re paid peanuts-to-zip for writing about it. And unfortunately for groupthink, coordinating collective knowledge is impossibly tricky. Pazz & Jop’s methods are imperfect. But so are Amazon’s, ILM’s, and Metacritic’s. So why doncha just listen to your Uncle Poobah?

The blogosphere eats up music so fast that whole backlash cycles are over in weeks. On Metacritic, the enthusiasm of the Pitchfork rave that got the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah thing rolling is now exceeded by, I kid you not, that of Billboard — and also, just barely, that of me, which took months to formulate, after I dismissed a borrowed EP and then decided to buy the album and ran it through my head on cassette (right, cassette, stole that music myself) and finally woke up from a nap one day saying, “Gee, whatever this is it moves.” By this time, CYHSY were a cliché. They’re a nice little band who will enjoy a profitable alt-circuit run. But with bloggers and listserv geeks joking about their name, their hot moment is permanently over. Never before has rock criticism been so into three of its ancient sins: cooler than thou, instant gratification, and what have you done for me lately.

So nuts to the way Bruce Springsteen’s predictably good album just barely snuck on at 40 (behind the National — ridiculous) and the Rolling Stones’ shockingly good album was edged out at 43 (two/three points behind German-techno Isolée and chanteuse-pop Feist, who at least offer alternatives), both with no appreciable help from voters under 35. I can respect that this hyper-precise Coldplay album belongs 23 places behind their warmer 2002 breakthrough, but not that this rocking Franz Ferdinand CD belongs 22 places behind the skinnier 2004 model, the one juiced by a bigger single and a newer band. And even more egregious are two albums that didn’t break 100. Four Tet’s Everything Ecstatic got three mentions two years after the 29th-place finish of their/his Rounds persuaded me to listen till I got it, which I guess I didn’t, because I swear the new one’s dabs of drum’n’bass distinguish it only marginally from its predecessor. You like one Kieran Hebden album, you like the other — unless you’ve decided “folktronica,” whatever that was, is now just too 2003. And then there’s 50 Cent, who came in 137th with a hookier and more seductive version of the debut album that finished 15th. People must have thought they couldn’t vote for the same bullet wounds twice.

What-have-you-done-for-me-lately is evil later. The way music has worked for me as an adult is that something that sounds good one year retains its zip. Timely pizzazz evolves into aesthetic impact; moments have legs. Longing to rewrite history, young crits love them their new oldsters. When an intelligent journeywoman like Bettye LaVette outdoes herself on two straight releases (though her Dennis Walker cheating album had stronger songs and rawer soul than 2005’s better-distributed Joe Henry job), she’s hailed as the new Shuggie Otis, I mean Loretta Lynn. But netsters have made such a life project of hopping on bands that they think nothing of filing Four Tet away with that Limp Bizkit embarrassment they fell for when they were 17. Franz Ferdinand’s 26th place was just a hype correction, and now they’ll fade from view or figure out what they have to say. But learning to hear Kieran Hebden took effort for an old guy like me, and I wish his constituency would show him some love. In years to come he’ll evoke his time more deeply if less acutely than Franz Ferdinand — unless he has to be rediscovered like Bettye LaVette.

Pardon me for breaking wind — after 32 or 33 years, I just couldn’t hold it anymore. Or maybe I mean if you can’t take the stink get out of the john — were I really hoping not to offend, I’d abandon this methodologically challenged enterprise altogether. Instead, here I am musing about posterity and framing an album argument as unnumbered file swappers and music bloggers join Pazz & Jop’s sizable old drink-fuck-and-be-merry singles-are-the-shit contingent. Since the kids were busy cultivating their very own byte-gardens while the old-timers fed dollar bills to the consensual jukebox, however, I had no trouble programming my changer and checking out our top 40 as album tracks. Most of these were masspop at its best, socially accessible songs-as-songs even if I didn’t know them as such. I only wish I could tell you they beat a barrel of monkeys in sequence. Right, Amerie’s explosive “1 Thing” is a machine-gun one-shot on an album with its safety engaged, Mariah Carey’s name-checking “We Belong Together” shines amid the stars, and the Game’s triumphant “Hate It or Love It” is so improved by removal from The Documentary that from here on in I’ll play the Clipse remix and remove it from the Game as well. But most charting “singles” I preferred in their longform contexts. Even Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” and Three 6 Mafia’s “Stay Fly” freshened up their albums for me.

Since I don’t drink in bars or have ear time for radio or TV (or music blogs), my own singles list is always weird. This one is headed by a 48-second, circa 1999 Eminem boot that I played for all my friends, and also includes two candidates for protest song of the year, a 50 Cent sweetmeat that apparently lost its flava on the blogpost overnight, a Black Eyed Peas sex trifle some consider the worst record of all time, “Gold Digger,” and an unprecedented four country titles, all accessed in one midsummer flurry. That two of my country picks also finished in our poll bespeaks both a desire to show love to the red states and a worsening drought in guitar-based representational songwriting.

There are certainly major exceptions on our chart beyond Brad Paisley’s “Alcohol” and Miranda Lambert’s “Kerosene,” neither one narrative in form, but both stressing the literal meaning of every well-chosen word: the quick Stones-ish reversal of Franz Ferdinand’s “Do You Want To,” the Kaiser Chiefs’ detailed if not always concrete “I Predict a Riot,” and, were someone else singing, Antony’s depressive “Hope There’s Someone.” But the BS favored by Beck, Bloc Party, My Chemical Romance, Death Cab for Cutie, and even punkoid dreamboats Fall Out Boy makes a fella love love love the White Stripes’ terse, painfully drawn out “My Doorbell.” With his retrograde prejudices fending off faddists, Jack White looks more like Van Morrison every year. That his duo finish high even though they’ll never make a Moondance is a little sick, but they earn the loyal base their knowing commitment to the blues-based attracts. “Hollaback Girl” and “Since U Been Gone” are wordwise too, but they definitely arrive music first. Part of Kanye West’s genius is how easily he straddles that divide, fitting deft narrative and multi-leveled rhetoric to dominant beats like a quality rapper should, only more humanely than Jay-Z, or OutKast either.

If my appetite for the literal isn’t au courant, sue me. These days I’m such an old fart I even use albums to help me understand singles. James Murphy seems like a nice guy in interviews, but as an artist he’s a scenester, and the poker-faced ennui of LCD Soundsystem taught me once and for all that it wasn’t just arthritic knees and parenting hours that kept me away from techno — it was the disco way of escapism. Occasionally the right dancefloor hit — say “Hate It or Love It” or “Get Low,” true electronica being so fungible it rarely makes our charts — can enlarge the soul, but most of them are too generalized to waste fun on. That extends even to the Gorillaz’ fun-enough “Feel Good Inc.” I like their DOR Demon Days better than the DOR LCD Soundsystem because it’s at once more utopian and more pessimistic, meaning full of hope indulged or dashed. But I prefer both artists’ wholes to their singles-charting parts; hell, I prefer James McMurtry’s longform to his magnificent “We Can’t Make It Here.” My long-held belief is that pop music is a way of knowledge as well as a way of pleasure. We need its knowledge desperately right now — that elusive sense of humans-after-all not just struggling for fun, as Simon Frith once put it, but determined to keep living fully while their supposed betters rob or disdain them. As chunks rather than scraps of history, albums — like literalism, come to that — tell us this intuition that comes over us isn’t just a trick of perception, evanescent and disposable.

[related_posts post_id_1=”573321″ /]

Although the Hold Steady’s Separation Sunday is more literal than the Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree, both are rock albums of a rather old-fashioned sort. Devoid of guitar pyrotechnics, pop cute’n’catchy, or any version of a hip-hop beat, each leads with a wordy singer who could almost be talking: ex-Lifter-Puller Craig Finn, whose storytelling has never shown more decency or range and whose band has never rocked louder, and Mountain Goat forever John Darnielle, who trades in the social fictions of Tallahassee and We Shall All Be Healed for less gnomic childhood reminiscences. In each band, strophic intensity packs a very basic musical wallop. Yet here’s the funny thing — each band also packs a classically trained sumbitch. Mahler and Chopin fan Darnielle puts Zorn-connected cellist Erik Friedlander out front, but who would figure that Franz Nicolay, who beefs up the Hold Steady’s guitar riffs with organ fills and varies them with piano figures, would show up on mandolin and accordion in the Zorn-connected avant-chamber ensemble Anti-Social Music?

This apparent coincidence manifests an Anglo culture that in 2005 is ruling-class hegemonic. As rock and roll attracts fewer juvenile delinquents and bored film students and more musos, it will sop up more classical training, because those are the music lessons young musos can get — like for instance Franz Ferdinand guitarist Nick McCarthy, an accomplished double bassist. But at a time when pop eats everything, the sonic repercussions of this regimen ain’t so bad. Those Jeezy and Three 6 appropriations are slammin’. The new prog represents (some) progress. Illinois is good-not-great, its “Casimir Pulaski Day” peak also its barest song, but give the schoolboy oboist credit for thinking “serious music,” asinine term, means Steve Reich — means the postmodern project of reconstituting 19th-century melodicism and color without corning everything up. And give Jon Brion credit for fitting in — if there’s more substance, clarity, and resonance to Fiona Apple’s musicianly songs than to Spoon’s or the New Pornos’, Brion is part of why. You won’t find a bigger inspired-amateur fan than me. Yay Art Brut and yay art brut. But I also like melody and color and, in this vilely Orwellian epoch, any sense of history whatsoever.

Who knows what will become of New Orleans music? With Wynton Marsalis sticking his status in, you can bet it will include classical training, which long before Jelly Roll Morton fed into the racially striated city’s black music, always informing the street culture Katrina swamped. But bet as well that it will include swingin’ — so far, Anglo ethnic music is just a flavor in what remains a fundamentally African American conception. As a particular skill, however, swing in 2005 — whatever the case in 2045, when 2005’s cultural interventions will have vanished into the apparently natural — was also a conservatory matter. Just ask any jazz guy how many Berklee grads he knows. And note that by Marsalis’s standards our most classical finisher is also our most swinging — the Monk-Coltrane find, a major and probably unrepeatable addition to both geniuses’ oeuvres just like everybody claims, and easily the most traditional jazz album ever to convince our voters it was pazz. Yet when I A-B’d it up against Kanye, I found Late Registration not only deeper but just as much fun. The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara, which to me sounds as ancient as sand even though it’s modern to Tuareg, Songhai, and Berber ears, is just deeper. You want fun, ask Amadou & Mariam.

Politically, the year wasn’t as disastrous as we’d feared. Some depredations of the Bush regime were turned back as it overreached itself, though not the foul new bankruptcy laws, and don’t ever think that the Bushies will back off, or that the new Supreme Court won’t back them up. But as many P&J voters who promised to keep on pushing withdrew into ever more pressing personal necessities, Katrina — most visible effect so far of the global warning the neocons’ trained seals with Ph.D.’s scoff at — threatened to destroy, and in the case of many artifacts, archives, and of course neighborhoods did destroy, a crucial locus of the history every rock critic owes himself or herself. So here’s a modest proposal for my young colleagues on the Net. I just checked Metacritic, and there is no listing for Our New Orleans. Make it your business to get it up there. Even in these low-promo times, Melissa Cusick at Nonesuch will probably hook you up.

Then call your senator and ask why there was no Alito filibuster. Just to let the bastards know you’re conscious.


Aretha Franklin’s Hip-Hop Legacy in Five Songs

In a career that spanned more than six decades, Aretha Franklin’s voice helped define the sound of soul music as the Detroit-raised singer brought the spiritual energy of her church choir upbringing to the pop charts. Digging through a discography that totaled more than forty studio albums, hip-hop producers going back to the genre’s golden era that began in the mid-Eighties have also expanded Franklin’s influence by frequently sampling her voice (and the backing tracks she sang over) and repurposing fragments of her music into the basis of rap songs.

Sometimes the combination is sweet and harmonious, like producer Ayatollah basing Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty” around Franklin’s wistful “One Step Ahead.” But when an artist is sampled as often as Franklin, another layer of insight emerges when you catch glimpses into how various producers experience and appreciate the same songs. Why did Dr. Dre choose a particular sample to bolster the menace of a track, when J Dilla used the same part to further a laid-back, spacey vibe? Why were the Wu-Tang Clan and Kanye West prompted down different conceptual lanes by the same Franklin song?

In respect of Franklin’s passing, at the age of 76, here’s a deep dive into five of her most-sampled songs that spotlight the way hip-hop producers have embraced her music and helped further her legacy.

[related_posts post_id_1=”610603″ /]

“Call Me”

Legend has it Franklin was moved to write “Call Me” after she overheard two lovers twittering away on Park Avenue before signing off with the words, “I love you, call me.” This sentiment was turned into a tender ballad that combines Franklin’s voice and piano-playing with nostalgic layers of strings, anchored by the Muscle Shoals rhythm section.

“Call Me” was originally released on 1970’s This Girl’s in Love With You — and 34 years later Kanye West harnessed the track’s piano lines and melody for Slum Village’s “Selfish.” A hook warbled by John Legend nods to Franklin’s lyrics, as he sings, “I’m calling, yeah, maybe I’m selfish.” The romantic integrity of the sample source is sort of maintained as Elzhi and T3 kick odes to various women they’ve met along their travels — although Ye heads in a crasser direction with a guest verse that features him bragging about paying for a conquest’s breast job.

In 2007, one of Kanye’s disciples, Big Sean, revisited “Call Me” for the first installment in his breakthrough Finally Famous mixtape series. B. Wright is credited as the producer behind the beat: The sample focuses on Franklin singing those overheard words, complete with the sort of sped-up, chipmunk soul-style treatment that you might expect Ye to have been behind — but Sean’s abrasive lyrics are like a middle finger to those who doubted him. This idea of “Call Me” inspiring an MC to write about their rise to success was also embraced by Brooklyn’s Joey Bada$$, who rhymed over Chuck Strangers’s melancholic interpretation of the song’s strings on “Reign.” The production prompts home-borough brags like, “It’s no biggie, I spread love the Brooklyn way/But when push come to shove I’m ’bout that Crooklyn wave.”

Taking “Call Me” in an altogether more rugged direction, Method Man rounded up his fellow Wu-Tang Clan members Raekwon and Masta Killa to spit archetypal Nineties rap brags on “Spazzola.” The track pairs tough kicks and snares with little more than a repeated section of Franklin’s piano-playing from the start of “Call Me,” which was looped up by Meth’s fellow Clan member Inspectah Deck.

“Rock Steady”

Released in 1971, “Rock Steady” is an upbeat, spunky soul track. “Let’s call this song exactly what it is/It’s a funky and low-down feeling,” warbles Franklin as she steps into a funk state of mind. The beat she’s singing over comes courtesy of Bernard Purdie — a drummer whose rhythms have proved a bountiful source for hip-hop sample diggers, along with Massive Attack, Beck, and the Prodigy reusing songs from his 1972 album Heavy Soul Singer. Considering this pedigree, it’s no surprise “Rock Steady” has been heartily mined by a long and regal list of hip-hop producers.

Going back to hip-hop’s golden age, Public Enemy were serial samplers of “Rock Steady.” The group’s in-house production unit, the Bomb Squad, reused a snippet of the track as a way to build up their trademark walls of noise: Grabbed from the mid-section of the song, Franklin’s holler of “Rock!” becomes a prompt for a breakdown section on the heavyweight “Miuzi Weighs a Ton,” while a similar trick is used in the mix of the chaotic anti-crack anthem “Night of the Living Baseheads.”

Dr. Dre picked up on Franklin’s iconic vocal, too, using it as part of the texture of the brooding “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat-Tat” from The Chronic. Also paying attention to this section of “Rock Steady” was J Dilla, the iconic Detroit producer. But whereas the Bomb Squad favored a funky cacophony, and Dre was all about conjuring up a feeling of menace, in Dilla’s hands Franklin’s cry is saturated in dubby echo effects on the woozy space funk of 1996’s “Rockhuh!” It’s a trick the now-deceased Detroit producer repeats on “Feel This Shit.” Venturing southward, Outkast’s in-house wax scratcher, Mr. DJ, chose to cut up the phrase on the group’s sultry ATLiens track “Jazzy Belle.”

Skipping back to the start of the song, Long Island duo EPMD turned the swaggering introductory groove of “Rock Steady” into the basis of 1988’s “I’m Housin’.” Over Cornell Dupree’s rhythm guitar and Bernard Purdie’s drum lines, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith boast about supping down bottles of lowbrow Cisco wine. It’s a vibe Wale updated for 2011’s “Lacefrontin,” with the sample assisting the song’s live-jam feel.

“I Get High”

Back in 1995, Smoothe da Hustler and his brother Trigga tha Gambler helped put Brownsville on the rap map with their hit “Broken Language.” The duo followed it up with “My Crew Can’t Go for That,” a track that wound up on Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor soundtrack and features a funky-but-ghostly wail from the very beginning of Franklin’s “I Get High.” Hooked up by the underrated beatmaker DR Period, this smart sample murmurs throughout the track — and gives credence to the idea that there’s often sample gold dust to be found in the first few seconds of a song.

The rest of Franklin’s “I Get High,” which was included on 1976’s Curtis Mayfield–produced Sparkle soundtrack, unfurls as a potent funk experience infused with snatches of luminous synths and dramatic strings. These melodic flourishes caught the ear of producer Ayatollah, who followed up his Franklin sample on Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty” by using parts of “I Get High” to serve up a chunky, motivational backdrop for Talib Kweli and Mos to rhyme over on “Joy.” Similarly soulful strings from the song assisted Princess Superstar’s courting of Kool Keith on their kooky rapped tryst “Keith N Me,” while Justus League beatmaker 9th Wonder used Franklin singing “sister girl” as a recurring motif on L.E.G.A.C.Y.’s “Sista Girl.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”610583″ /]


“Respect” was originally written and released by Otis Redding in 1965. But when Franklin recorded her take of the track two years later, her jubilant and determined singing, coupled with an infectious sax-spiked backing, turned “Respect” into an anthem for the feminist movement as well as earning her a couple of Grammy awards. Since then, it’s been enshrined as Franklin’s signature song — and the track has also inspired a rich run of rap songs: Old-school rapper Kool Moe Dee flipped the lyrical concept and employed the song’s memorable riff for 1987’s “No Respect,” a blast of drum machine–powered rap hooked around the idea that “money can’t buy respect.” Chuck D and Flavor Flav also tapped into Franklin’s lyrics when they added the line “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/My sister’s not my enemy” to the pro-feminist “Revolutionary Generation” from the incendiary Fear of a Black Planet.

Hip-hop’s famed Roxanne wars of the 1980s — wherein a bunch of rappers strung out what would now be called a meme into a series of dis songs — also includes choice samples from “Respect.” The Real Roxanne’s “Respect” gets its thrust from producer Howie Tee tapping into the opening refrain of Franklin’s song, while Doctor Ice — whose group UTFO kick-started the trend with “Roxanne, Roxanne” — used a similar sonic trick on 1989’s “Just a Little Bit (Oh Doctor, Doctor).”

The chorus to “Respect” is etched in the minds of music lovers across the world — and it’s naturally found its way into hip-hop hooks. Pioneering Latino rap group Lighter Shade of Brown struck upon the idea with 1990’s punchy “Paquito Soul,” which pairs Franklin singing “just a little bit” with other vocal grabs. Building on this idea, De La Soul drafted R&B duo Zhané to re-sing the line on their sultry, static-warmed Stakes Is High album cut “4 More.”

“Young, Gifted and Black”

The title track to Franklin’s 1972 album is a gospel-tinged cover of Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Franklin emotes through the song’s uplifting lyrics with raw emotion, accompanied in the main by her own piano-playing. In the hands of hip-hop producers, the song’s sample history has become a tale of two piano riffs.

Back in the early-1990s, producers like DJ Premier and Pete Rock would often open and close album tracks with short snippets of beats to set the mood. Gang Starr’s “92 Interlude” is one of the most memorable examples of the trend: It’s twenty seconds of a beguiling piano loop and the bare snap of a beat that almost comes off like a click track. It’s a piano loop DJ Premier noticed halfway through “Young, Gifted and Black,” nestled between Franklin singing “When you feeling real low” and, “Here’s a great truth you should remember and know/That you’re young, gifted, and black.” Later that year, Premier fleshed the sample out into a full track for Heavy D, who rapped over the riff on “Yes Y’All” from his Blue Funk album.

While DJ Premier was dropping the needle halfway through “Young, Gifted and Black,” Lupe Fiasco was charmed by the way Franklin’s piano opens the song. Those notes are used as the melodic basis of “Cold World,” an unreleased track from the Chicago rapper’s vault. Similarly inspired by Franklin’s playing, Rapsody’s “Laila’s Wisdom” leans heavily on both the introductory and mid-section original piano lines to give the song its soul factor. Lyrically, Rapsody also rhymes as if she’s channeling the determined and uplifting spirit of many of Franklin’s songs. “Keep that style you got soulful/The best of the best gon’ fear you/Sky’s the limit, see, I told you,” she raps in words that now seem especially poignant in the shadow of Franklin’s passing.


“Atlanta” Season Two Mines the Perils of Being Famous While Black

The premiere of the second season of Atlanta opens like a buddy comedy but quickly turns into a shoot-’em-up action sequence: Two friends playing video games decide on the fly to rob a fast-food restaurant. When they do, we see it all in tense slow motion, this small-scale heist invested with all the high-stakes drama of a battle scene in a war movie.

That kind of tonal shift happens a lot on this show, particularly its stellar second season — subtitled Robbin’ Season — which ends tonight. Atlanta creator Donald Glover explores a similarly abrupt turn from casual cheer to grim violence in the explosive music video for his new single, as rapper Childish Gambino, titled “This Is America.” In Robbin’ Season, these swerves into menace continue when rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry) tries to pick up weed, only to have his longtime dealer and friend sheepishly pull a gun on him (“Ay, my fault”); or when three young fans encounter Al alone on the street and gush before attacking him and stealing his watch; or when a white man buying tickets at an upscale movie theater wordlessly pulls back his jacket to reveal a holstered gun on his hip, prompting Al’s cousin Earn (Glover) and the mother of Earn’s child, Van (Zazie Beetz), to book it. In the world of Atlanta, the threat of violence looms behind the veneer of every mundane interaction. As a white viewer (and a Canadian no less!), for me the show is a bracing reminder that the rhythms of everyday life are not the same for all of us.

Atlanta’s first season outlined Earn’s quest to make a buck managing his cousin’s nascent career. The second turns its focus more squarely on Alfred himself. Ambitious but ambivalent over his newfound fame, Alfred is caught between his community and the wider (and whiter) world of celebrity — a rapper who resists the imperative to posture although that seems to be all anyone wants from him.

[related_posts post_id_1=”579875″ /]

Alfred’s season-two arc is a cutting portrait of stardom in the social media age. Being a local celebrity only seems to put him in danger — of losing touch with himself, but also literal, physical danger; his fame is a target on his back. The clichéd trappings of a successful rap career don’t yield many pleasures for Al. Even the promise of pussy falters: When Earn arranges for Al to sleep at a fan’s apartment during a college performance, to save money, the girl turns out to be less alluring than strangely threatening. Lying on her bed in her pink-walled room, she tells Al about a sexy dream she had where they were exotic animals holding each other naked: “And then I ate you. And there was blood everywhere.”

These incidents speak to the hazards of fame, but also its illusory nature. In the world of celebrity, nothing is as it seems. Al’s spacy sidekick, Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), warns that anyone with a certain number of Instagram followers inevitably has an “unrealistic view” of life. In “Champagne Papi,” Van and her girls snag themselves invites to a party thrown by Drake; a friend of Van’s is stringing along the rapper’s tour barber, one of many satellites orbiting Drake’s star. But the party doesn’t quite resemble the one being documented all night on Instagram. The women have to wear hospital booties over their high heels to protect the mansion’s marble floors; a nice guy who offers to help Van charge her phone turns out to be a creep; and, finally, Van discovers that Drake’s not actually there, and that all those girls on Insta have been sharing photos of themselves standing beside a cardboard cutout — a fairly ingenious hustle run by two enterprising women charging partygoers twenty bucks a pop.

As the season progresses, Alfred learns that fame can be less liberating than oppressive. The higher he climbs, the more he realizes that his success depends on access to and the approval of white people. While fellow up-and-comer Clark County (RJ Walker) — whose white manager has already booked him a Yoo-hoo commercial — gamely snaps pics with the pale millennial running a hipster music streaming service called Fresh, Alfred takes one look at a twentysomething white kid eating a banana at his cubicle and wordlessly leaves the room, handing the kid his microphone on the way out.


As Atlanta Robbin’ Season was entering the home stretch, Kanye West started to tweet. He was a “free thinker,” he claimed, and he wouldn’t be shamed for supporting Donald Trump. “The mob can’t make me not love him,” he tweeted in late April, shortly before posting a picture of himself in a red MAGA hat. “We are both dragon energy. He is my brother.” Later, West visited the offices of TMZ and claimed that slavery was a “choice.”

On Monday, Ta-Nehisi Coates, of course, wrote the response I’d been waiting to read, about fame and how it fucks with people — especially black people, who carry the expectations of a community not just on their albums and movies and music videos and TV shows but on their own backs, too. Of his own brush with fame, after the publication of Between the World and Me in 2015, Coates writes, “I felt myself to be the same as I had always been, but everything around me was warping. My sense of myself as part of a community of black writers disintegrated before me.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”248740″ /]

The implication in all this — and what Atlanta so nimbly teases out — is that there’s something inextricably whitening about the pursuit of mainstream fame in America, no matter how absolutely central the contributions of African Americans have always been in shaping mainstream American culture. (The show’s tradition of stamping its opening credits onto everyday objects, half-hidden, speaks to the open secret of black cultural dominance: This season, “Atlanta” shows up stitched into a placemat on a coffee table, etched into the barrel of a gun, and, my personal favorite, printed on the side of a bus driving by in the background, out of focus and barely perceptible. Central, crucial, yet marginal.) Atlanta Robbin’ Season made this point explicit in its headline-grabbing sixth episode, “Teddy Perkins,” in which Glover plays the title character — a wealthy mansion-dweller in a silk robe whose face is a bizarre mask of whiteface, and who claims his brother is a famous black jazz pianist. Darius, who drives out to pick up a piano Teddy listed online, suspects the man is black but has bleached his skin to the point of grotesquerie. Like so many episodes of Atlanta, this veers into violence as Teddy, rifle in hand, cuffs Darius to a chair and threatens to “sacrifice” him. Darius escapes unharmed, but before he does he takes the time to demonstrate empathy for his captor. Darius tells Teddy that Teddy’s father should have apologized for his abusiveness, and that Teddy still deserves love.

The existence of Atlanta itself is a powerful rebuke to its own hard-headed cynicism. The creative freedom that FX has given Glover means the show doesn’t launder its blackness the way so many other series centered on black life do — most TV is made by committee, and that committee is usually predominantly white. The show boldly speaks to American culture’s impulse to extract all that is cool or profitable from blackness while discarding actual black people, a compulsion that Jordan Peele so brilliantly made literal in Get Out. Alfred understands this, so he resists being sucked into the maw of mainstream pop culture — he doesn’t want to play this game, finds no solace in the fact that corporate, white America will pay him to rap over ads for chocolate-flavored sugar water. The freedom he craves is the kind that leads him “back to Home,” as Coates puts it, rather than “the white freedom of Calabasas.”

Maybe such freedom is impossible for someone like Alfred. That’s the conclusion he seems to have come to when he toys with the idea of jettisoning his cousin, late in the season, and hiring a bearded white guy in his place. Alfred’s arc suggests the near impossibility of being famous and real at the same time, especially if you’re black. Maybe Glover’s own success shows that there is a path for a black artist in a white world. But in the world of Atlanta, the best you can hope for is to be famous for being perceived as real, because that’s all fame is — a trick of the mind, an optical illusion. A cardboard cutout Drake.

The season finale of Atlanta airs tonight at 10 p.m. on FX.


Click here to sign up for our weekly film and TV newsletter.


Why Conservatives Can Crush on Kanye Yet Hate Michelle Wolf

Conservatives raging at a comedian who hurt their feelings, as they did over White House Correspondents’ Dinner entertainer Michelle Wolf last weekend, is pretty much standard behavior for the folks who think everyone else is the snowflake. But the spectacle of white right-wingers rejoicing over the recent pro-Trump ravings of Kanye West may confuse you, especially considering they probably know him more for his many public self-embarrassments than for his music. Why would members of a white revanchist movement fawn over a black rapper who famously said George W. Bush didn’t care about African Americans?

Well, for one thing, conservatives conveniently abandoned Bush years ago. For another, it all makes more sense when you consider their historic lack of popularity with black people and their weird jealousy over it.

Even if you only casually follow politics, you know that since the days of Nixon’s Southern strategy Republicans have had a contentious relationship with people of color. This has only gotten worse under Donald Trump, a hyper-obvious racist whose rants about Colin Kaepernick and John Lewis, not to mention his treatment of Mexicans, Muslims, and Puerto Ricans, have helped speed the GOP’s conversion into the White People’s Party.

Thanks to gerrymanders and white rage, Republicans have so far been able to hold their majorities just fine without black support, so it’s fair to assume they feel about black votes the way James Baker felt about the votes of Jews. But the conservatives who use the GOP as a host body are more conflicted.

On the one hand, many conservatives reflexively portray blacks as violent thugs who must be subdued by militarized police, particularly right after a racially charged news story has engaged their lizard brains, or if they are Heather Mac Donald.

On the other hand, conservatives seem genuinely hurt and confused when black people call them names like “white supremacist.” You can see this most clearly in their annual aggrieved Martin Luther King Jr. Day essays in which they either try to claim MLK as one of their own (“King’s Orthodox Christianity is one of those inconvenient truths that a lot of people on the left tend to ignore” — Da Tech Guy) or tell black people to stop persecuting them with their contempt (“MLK Day proposal: Give the race card a rest” — Michelle Malkin).

[related_posts post_id_1=”585954″ /]

Sure, white conservatives applaud when Charles Murray tells them black people are their intellectual inferiors, but in their view that’s just science (and free speech!), not anything to take personally. And anyway, it’s the liberals who are the Real Racists, keeping blacks enslaved on what conservatives like to call the “Democratic plantation,” from which conservatives only want to rescue them by ending affirmative action and food stamps, which will give them the bootstraps they need to succeed.

Yet despite this helpful hectoring, most blacks keep voting Democratic, so conservatives sulk and brood, only occasionally brightening when a black celebrity says something that can be charitably interpreted as right-wing. Bill Cosby, with his pull-up-your-pants shtick, was their go-to for years, but for obvious reasons you see much less of that now. Chris Rock is their usual backup; here’s National Review’s Kyle Smith kvelling, “When he speaks about the destructiveness of porn he sounds like Ross Douthat.” (And I thought I was the only one who found Douthat hilarious!)

So when West busted out his pro-Trump tweets last week, notwithstanding that he also said, “I haven’t done enough research on conservatives to call myself or be called one,” the brethren were juiced. Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell are all well and good, but here was a black guy ordinary people had actually heard of and could stand to listen to!

Also, West wasn’t just saying things that could be read, if one squinted and had had a few drinks, as conservative policy statements. In fact, West didn’t stipulate any conservative policies that he approved of. (I’m not sure he knows what they are.) Yeezy was just saying out loud, in a variety of peculiar ways, that he loved Trump and his dragon energy.

But, as we have seen, these days loving Trump is conservatism enough for the brethren. And they were especially pleased to have snatched a person of color from what they portrayed as the liberal camp, and treated West the way the State Department used to treat Russian defectors.

“Entertainment elites are in total freakout mode,” exulted Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, “because one of its megastars, Kanye West, announced that he’s thinking for himself!” This she characterized as a blow to the leftist entertainment industry, who “claim that they have a monopoly on tolerance and inclusion,” but who proved themselves hypocrites when they “unfollowed [West] on social media.”

This also proved, per Ingraham, that “original thought will not be tolerated by this crowd…anyone who dares to question the ideological orthodoxy of the left, particularly a black artist, must be brought back into line.” Just like they did to Paul Robeson!

[related_posts post_id_1=”583035” /]

In front of a banner reading “Attack on Free Thought,” Fox News’ Tucker Carlson told his audience that “progressives are almost unconscious with rage” at West, and then for some reason was joined by Canadian conservative Mark Steyn, mainly known for hating Muslim immigrants and as one of the few conservatives to leap to the defense of the no-really-I’m-not-even-kidding racist John Derbyshire when he was fired by National Review in 2012.

Steyn said West’s tweets were a threat to the “lockstep homogeneity of popular culture in the United States,” which was important because “pop culture acts as the great enforcer in America.” For example, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy voted for gay marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges because “the pop culture has told him to get onside,” perhaps in the form of an electro dance house mix. “It’s bigger than anything!” cried Steyn. Wow, such power — maybe pop culture will next try to win at least one house of Congress.

Lest you think only the TV conservatives were pumping this, the Resurgent — the oh-so-serious conservative site whose owner, Erick Erickson, recently blubbered that his old site RedState had purged all its NeverTrump rightbloggers — had no fewer than six Kanye-related posts, in one of which Erickson himself crowed, “Declaring himself a Trump fan, West dared to think for himself and the left is throwing a fit,” churning out think pieces about “how ridiculous it is to think the Democrats keep black people on a mental plantation.” (“Plantation”! Drink!)

Also, National Review had Kanye West posts by Jim Geraghty (“You can almost picture the looks of shock and horror on Democratic leaders’ faces”), Kyle Smith (“For someone as young, black and cool as West to give a thumbs-up to Trump was like an electromagnetic pulse that fried the left’s thinking circuits”; West is forty years old), and David French, who described the rich musician as a latter-day Giles Corey (“The liberal Internet piled on. He was unmoved. It kept piling on. He remained unmoved”). French also compared West to a “pastor” who had “abandoned his flock” of liberals. (It has become a thing lately for religious conservatives to compare liberalism to a church — which, perhaps for confessional reasons, they intend as an insult.)

Later West dropped a track from his — surprise! — upcoming album, a colloquy with T.I. about — also surprise! — West’s love of Trump. “See that’s the problem with this damn nation,” spat West; “all blacks gotta be Democrats, man, we ain’t made it off the plantation.”

The P word! You can imagine how that went over with the brethren. “Democrat Plantation Searches For Runaway Slave Kanye, In Bombshell Political Art,” tweeted Alex Jones, linking to an Infowars article featuring a cartoon by wingnut artist Branco in which — as Infowars described it — “an angry donkey who runs a plantation, marked with a letter ‘D,’ looks for missing slave Kanye West” (who looks more like Larry Holmes than West in Branco’s drawing). “Indeed,” added Branco himself, “The Left strokes out when any high-profile black leaves the Dem plantation.”

No one — well, almost no one — on the right seemed to consider the possibility that West had had that track in the can for some time, and had presaged it with a bunch of pro-Trump tweets not to promote conservatism, but to promote himself.

Meanwhile, Michelle Wolf did a comedy routine at Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner that mocked Trump (who was not present) as well as the Washington press corps and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (who were). Among other things, Wolf referred to the indisputable facts that both Trump and Sanders lie constantly and that the press gives Trump lots of free media time to spread his bullshit.

Every conservative in America howled with outrage.

“Ugly, crass and at some points just flat out stupid,” sputtered RedState. “The so-called comedian really ‘bombed,’ ” tweeted Trump, who suggested next year the featured comedian should be Fox brow-squincher Greg Gutfield, who responded, falsely, that Wolf had resorted to “physical ridicule” of Sanders and that “if it were a conservative doing so, it would be called misogyny,” which Trump may have appreciated as an inside joke.

[related_posts post_id_1=”568120″ /]

This alleged lookism became the go-to fraud for WHCD snowflakes and outrage generators. Mika Brzezinksi claimed to have seen “a wife and mother…humiliated on national television for her looks”; “it’s now courage to go after the woman,” snarked wingnut-without-portfolio Stephen Miller, who gained attention last year for announcing he would invade an all-female showing of Wonder Woman.

“My wife @mercedesschlapp and I walked out early from the wh correspondents dinner,” tweeted Matt Schlapp. “Enough of elites mocking all of us.” Schlapp is chairman of the American Conservative Union, but as a non-elite lives in a trailer out by the railroad tracks and drinks Miller Lite.

Head-table media dweebs, hoping to keep their sources moist, joined the collective huff. The New York TimesMaggie Haberman also claimed Wolf had attacked Sanders’s “physical appearance;” other high-priced journalists followed suit. (CNN’s Chris Cillizza even accused Wolf of “bullying” the press secretary, which is like accusing David of taking unfair advantage of Goliath’s height.)

So if we learned anything last week, it was that attacking the most powerful people on Earth is shameful — while sucking up to them is a refreshing expression of independent thought.


How Kanye West, Bowie, and the Streets of New York Influenced St. Lucia’s ‘Matter’

While St. Lucia may have started out like any other indie act from Brooklyn, the band’s debut album, When the Night, took them down a path of mainstream success that set them apart from many of the artists who have cut their teeth in the city. The band — fronted by Jean Philip Grobler — went from playing gigs at Cameo Gallery and Santos Party House to performing the festival circuit, but New York really did play a significant part in St. Lucia’s story. “We were very much a resident New York band, and I think New York in the way it is and was has always influenced our sound a lot,” says Grobler. 

Following the second wave of electropop bands like Passion Pit and Neon Indian, St. Lucia surfaced with anthemic choruses, catchy pop hooks, and live shows tailor-made for dancing. Hailing from South Africa, Grobler grew up singing in a boys’ choir, something that contributed to the layered vocals on singles like “Elevate” and “Closer Than This.” “Basically, the last record was made in my studio in the almost perfect situation where I had all my instruments around me — my life was very domestic, in a way,” says Grobler. “I was in New York all the time, and my studio was three blocks away from my apartment.”

After releasing their first album, St. Lucia spent a lot of time on tour and had to give up their studio. “I realized if I didn’t want to take five years to write my next record, I had to embrace writing on the road,” Grobler explains. 

Though St. Lucia’s music thus far has been rooted in pop, their latest record, Matter, was influenced by St. Lucia’s time spent living in the States, exploring the country and American music. Grobler unexpectedly found inspiration in hip-hop this time around. “I’ve never been a massive hip-hop fan, just because it was just not a part of my culture growing up,” explains Grobler. “Living in the States has made me really grow into liking hip-hop. I think Kanye West was a huge influence on this record — how epic, huge, and uncompromising his music is.” Because he was unafraid of changing his sound, David Bowie had a profound influence on Grobler’s songwriting. “When we were on the road in our spare time, I thought we should listen to some artists’ catalogs that I haven’t spent listening to, and I listened to all of his records in order,” Grobler recalls. “At times when I was afraid of changing the sound or direction, [his music] helped take the fear away.”

With Matter, there were a lot of differences in the way St. Lucia approached making the record. For Grobler, it was a lyrically contemplative experience of growing older, watching his parents get older, and uprooting his life to spend a ton of time on the road. “I think as you get older those things start to weigh on your mind a bit more,” says Grobler. “I think when you’re in your twenties, you’re living in the moment all the time.”

The first single on Matter, “Dancing on Glass,” is an obvious pop track that fans of St. Lucia might expect from the band, but one of the standouts is a song called “Help Me Run Away,” which Grobler wrote with Jack Antonoff. “[The song] is a tribute to America and psychoanalyzing my reasons for being in this country,” he explains. “Like, I’m here running away from my responsibilities that I have back in South Africa and the secrets in my past, whatever they might be.”

For now, St. Lucia are staying put — at least for this week, when they play their upcoming NYC gigs, which take place at Baby’s All Right on January 29 and Webster Hall on January 30. They’re going back to some of the venues that helped them get on the map and amass a mainstream following. For Grobler and Co., music has been their livelihood, and the success is something they’re grateful for. “I’d like St. Lucia to be around for a really long time, but St. Lucia may evolve into something else or there might be a different musical project that comes along,” says Grobler. “Music is something I always wanted to do — for better or for worse, it’s my passion.”

St. Lucia play Baby’s All Right January 29 and Webster Hall January 30. Both shows are sold out, but check secondary markets for tickets.


Evian Christ+Sophie+Nguzunguzu

If you’re looking for some peaceful beats after a weekend of maximalism at Electric Zoo, stay away from Dark Disco. The three headliners here operate in distinct fields, but a lack of subtlety is one of their shared characteristics. Evian Christ graduated from uploading Youtube videos in 2011 to collaborating with Kanye West last year, and the distorted aggression of Yeezus clearly rubbed off on Christ’s latest solo productions for Tri Angle. Initially appearing on the Glasgow-based Numbers and now signed to XL, Sophie makes music that’s considerably cheerier but no less blinding in its effervescence, though the enigmatic producers live show has drawn considerable scrutiny. The hydra is completed with Nguzunguzu, whose searing and eclectic DJ sets have taken them everywhere from scoring fashion shows to joining up with Fatima Al Qadiri and J-Cush as part of the burgeoning “DJ supergroup” Future Brown.

Sat., Sept. 6, 11 p.m., 2014


Ryan Leslie

Most people know Ryan Leslie for his work behind the scenes, namely as the producer of Cassie’s “Me & U,” which went on to become possibly the biggest cult R&B hit of the past decade. Since then he’s garnered a cult fanbase of his own, both for his music – often compared to The-Dream at his knottiest peak – and his joining the ranks of artists, usually indie and usually overlooked, who are quietly innovating in digital distribution; his Disruptive Multimedia fan platform has garnered the funding and praise of both VCs and Kanye West.

Wed., Aug. 20, 9 p.m., 2014